THE FENTANYL FAILURE
“In May 2016, a group of national health experts issued an urgent plea in a private letter to high-level officials in the Obama administration,” Scott Higham, Sari Horwitz, and Katie Zezima report for The Washington Post. “Thousands of people were dying from overdoses of fentanyl — the deadliest drug to ever hit U.S. streets.” Yet “despite mounting deaths and warnings, the Obama administration did not take extraordinary measures to confront an extraordinary crisis, experts say.”
Between 2013 and 2017, more than 67,000 people died of synthetic-opioid-related overdoses — exceeding the number of U.S. military personnel killed during the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined. The number of deaths, the vast majority from fentanyl, has risen sharply each year. In 2017, synthetic opioids were to blame for 28,869 out of the overall 47,600 opioid overdoses, a 46.4 percent increase over the previous year, when fentanyl became the leading cause of overdose deaths in America for the first time.
“This is a massive institutional failure, and I don’t think people have come to grips with it,” said John P. Walters, chief of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy between 2001 and 2009. “This is like an absurd bad dream and we don’t know how to intervene or how to save lives.”
Federal officials saw fentanyl as an appendage to the overall opioid crisis rather than a unique threat that required its own targeted strategy. As law enforcement began cracking down in 2005 on prescription opioids such as OxyContin and Vicodin, addicts turned to heroin, which was cheaper and more available. Then, in 2013, fentanyl arrived, and overdoses and deaths soared.
“Fentanyl was killing people like we’d never seen before,” said Derek Maltz, the former agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Special Operations Division in Washington. “A red light was going off, ding, ding, ding. This is something brand new. What the hell is going on? We needed a serious sense of urgency.”
But for years, Congress didn’t provide significant funding to combat fentanyl or the larger opioid epidemic. U.S. Customs and Border Protection didn’t have enough officers, properly trained dogs or sophisticated equipment to curb illegal fentanyl shipments entering the country from China and Mexico. The U.S. Postal Service didn’t require electronic monitoring of international packages, making it difficult to detect parcels containing fentanyl ordered over the Internet from China. CDC data documenting fentanyl overdoses lagged events on the ground by as much as a year, obscuring the real-time picture of what was happening.
Facing hotly contested midterm elections in 2018, Congress finally passed legislation aimed at addressing the increasingly politicized opioid crisis, including a measure to force the Postal Service to start tracking international packages.
“How many people had to die before Congress stood up and did the right thing with regard to telling our own Post Office you have to provide better screening?” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), sponsor of the legislation, asked on the Senate floor last fall.
Local and state leaders in hard-hit communities say the federal government wasted too much time at a cost of far too many lives.
“Everybody was slow to recognize the severity of the problem, even though a lot of the warning signs were there,” said Gov. Chris Sununu (R) of New Hampshire, which has one of the highest fentanyl overdose rates in the United States.
“In the city of Manchester, we saw 20 overdoses to 80 overdoses a month. We were like, ‘What the heck is happening with these overdoses?’ ” said Manchester Fire Chief Dan Goonan.
He said politicians and policymakers held numerous roundtable discussions to talk about solutions, but there was little action.
“I said, ‘If I had to go to another roundtable, I’m going to jump out the window myself because we’re going nowhere with these roundtables,’ ” he said.